Hydroponic gardening is a great way to grow lots of vegetables all year-round. Even the beginner gardener can create an inexpensive, easy hydroponic system. If you’re interested in how to set up a hydroponic grow system but don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered.
This gardening method allows for vegetables and plants to be grown anywhere, regardless of soil type, yard size, weather, and climate. If you live in a location where you’re only able to garden part of the year due to inclement weather, this method of gardening is excellent for the off-months. Or, if you don’t have traditional garden space, with hydroponic techniques, it is still possible to grow food for the family.
What is hydroponic vegetable gardening?
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants that doesn’t use soil. This method of gardening has been around for at least 500 years. It only recently has become more popular, though. This is mostly because people want to grow food but lack space or healthy soil in which to do so. Using hydroponics, it doesn’t matter if you have a backyard to dig a garden or not. It doesn’t matter if the soil in your yard is dense clay. Hydroponics changes the way food is grown entirely by not relying on what is already there. Instead, a system is built, and food can be grown anywhere.
The benefits of hydroponic gardening
- Soilless – A hydroponic grow system provides a way to garden that doesn’t depend on the earth. In some locations, a hydroponic garden may be the only option to grow vegetables due to poor soil quality. It’s also a less messy way of gardening since you won’t be getting your hands dirty.
- No Yard Necessary – If you have a small yard or none at all, you can still garden with hydroponics. These systems are most often set up indoors.
- Grow Year-Round – Since the hydroponics system doesn’t rely on soil, sun, or weather, it is possible to grow food regardless of the season. The majority of hydroponic set-ups are indoors. This allows for growing when you want to without worrying about frost dates or hot spells or droughts.
- Produces More – Because all the hydroponic systems are designed to utilize resources efficiently, they produce crops faster than any soil-based garden. And, since the vegetables grow fast, it means you can plant more often too.
- Specialty Crops – Using a hydroponics system allows you to grow vegetables or fruits that may not normally succeed in your climate. The system can be designed to suit a specific specialty crop or crops. And, it is easily changed many times without having to rebuild the entire thing. This is near impossible to do with a soil-based garden.
- Uses Less Water – Water doesn’t soak into the soil and is not evaporated by the sun’s heat. This is a water-based system, but the amount of water used is set and won’t vary by much. You can plan how much will be used for each grow cycle.
- Fewer Pests – Hydroponic systems inside a house or greenhouse don’t have to worry about deer, mice, or raccoons stealing the crop. There are fewer pesky bug infestations and fewer diseases overall.
The six hydroponic systems
This is the simplest method of growing hydroponically. It doesn’t require a fancy set-up. The most basic wick system can be created with an emptied plastic liter bottle, some string, a growing medium, and seeds. There are no pumps or expensive equipment and no need for electricity. With this method, a string or ‘wick’ is looped between a reservoir of nutrient-rich water and the plant. The wick soaks up the water and transfers it to the plant to feed the roots. Best for growing greens, herbs, and vegetables that don’t fruit. It doesn’t provide enough nutrition for heavy feeding plants.
This system is the most common around the world. It is a basic set-up but does require electricity to run a submersible pump. Tubing is arranged between a water reservoir and the plants. An electric pump sends water with a nutrient solution to the growing vegetables. Then, a second pump aerates the water to provide oxygen to the roots. The pumped water is recycled back to the reservoir and reused for weeks until the nutrients are depleted. At that time, the water and nutrients are refreshed, and the cycle continues. Best for peppers, peas, radishes, zucchini, pumpkins, squash, and beans. Large vegetables grow well with this method.
Deep Water Culture (DWC)
Another extremely popular hydroponic system because of the simplicity of set-up. Plants are set in net pots with a growing medium. There, their roots are immersed in the water reservoir below. No water pump is needed to move the nutrient solution to the plants as they sit in it continuously. An air pump is necessary to provide the roots with oxygen. Best for lettuce, greens, radishes, kale, cabbage, and broccoli. Tall or heavy plants don’t do well in this hydroponic garden unless they have added support.
Ebb & Flow (also known as Flood and Drain)
In this system, the plants are arranged in a growing medium and, at timed intervals, are flooded with the nutrient-rich water. The water drains back to the reservoir to be pumped back on a schedule. This system requires pumps, timers, and a specific design. In this system, plants grow faster than with the Drip or DWC system, and the set-up can produce a lot more. However, the cost to set it up is more, plus it needs frequent and consistent supervision. Excellent system for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, herbs, and other vegetables that require a lot of nutrients.
Nutrient Film Technique (NFT)
This system is a little more complex to set up. It relies on pumps and gravity to ensure the plants get what they need. The vegetable plants are put grow net pots with their roots dangling free, then placed in channels, or gullies. Water is continuously pumped down the channels to provide the plant roots with nutrients. The build has to be exact, so the water flows correctly, plus it requires pumps and frequent monitoring. The NFT method is excellent for large operations growing strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.
Instead of being constantly immersed in water, the roots are exposed more to air. The water reservoir is below the roots, and a small sprinkler system in the tank mists the roots from below. This design provides faster harvests and more abundance of crops. It must be monitored and maintained carefully, though, because it the sprinkler ever stops working, the roots will die quite quickly. Excellent hydroponic garden for lettuce and herbs.
How does a hydroponic garden work?
As you can see, there are many possibilities for how the hydroponic grow system is arranged. The basics, though, are that the plant’s roots are provided with nutrient-enriched water and oxygen on a consistent basis. Each system provides these necessities differently. In addition, each method supplies a technique for supporting the plants and for the water and oxygen to reach the roots.
“It’s a MacGyver’ hobby. You can buy prepacked packages, or you can get pieces and parts and tinker with them.”
Dan Lubkeman, President of the Hydroponics Society of America
What do you need to build a hydroponic garden?
The equipment you need to start any hydroponics system depends on which method you will be using. It is recommended that beginners start with the wick, drip, or deep water culture methods since they are the easiest to build. The basic materials vary with each one but aren’t difficult to acquire or assemble.
The building blocks of hydroponics
A lot of the terminology used in explaining the hydroponic garden is unfamiliar to new gardeners. That’s okay! There are a few basic things to know before starting any system.
Nutrients – This is how the plants get the food needed to live — nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, as well as dozens of other essential minerals. Hydroponic nutrients must be purchased, and there are a lot of options when it comes to the best type for specific plants. A lot also depends on which system you are using. The nutrient mix makes up for the lack of soil, which is where plants usually get their food. You must use nutrient mixes specifically designed for hydroponic growing. This is one of the regular costs of growing vegetables this way. Hydroponic nutrients are available as premixed liquids or powders that need to be hand-mixed.
pH – The pH is the measure of acid or alkaline. When growing in soil, this number is important, too. Some plants prefer more acidic growing conditions, and others prefer the opposite. The pH range must be maintained to a specific number to ensure the plants receive an adequate and accurate amount of nutrients. As water is cycled and recycled, nutrients get used up, and the pH changes. These changes require that the grower test the pH level on a regular, sometimes daily, basis. There are test strips to do this or electronic devices.
Growing Mediums – A growing medium is vastly different from soil. They do not contain nutrients. Grow mediums are chosen based on their ability to absorb water, provide stability, and support adequate drainage. Some popular choices include coco coir, rock wool, clay pellets, sand, pine bark, vermiculite, and perlite. Often, a combination of these mediums is used.
Net Pots (Grow Baskets) – These handy little gems are basically small baskets with holes in them. The growing medium is placed in the basket, and the seedling is arranged in the medium securely. This allows the plant roots to hang free as they grow which for several of the systems is essential so they receive the nutrient water solution.
Reservoir – The reservoir holds the water and nutrient solution mix. Storage totes, old glass aquariums, and 5-gallon buckets are a few of the common reservoirs used in a hydroponic garden.
Grow Lights – Specific lights aren’t necessary for all the grow systems, but they are important for several. Plants need nutrients, oxygen, and light to thrive. If you only have a few plants and have some bright window space available, that suffices just fine. However, larger systems located indoors in areas without windows or sufficient light will need artificial lighting.
Can a hydroponic garden be indoors?
Yes! In fact, most of them are indoors. That is the beauty of the system. A spare room, closet, or even table by a window can be the home of a hydroponic grow system. All the plant’s needs are arranged and provided in a created space. This type of gardening opens the door of possibilities for who and where food can be grown. All the gardener needs to do is make sure the plants are given all they need to thrive.
What type of hydroponic system is right for you?
There are several things to take into consideration when choosing a hydroponic system. A lot depends on your personal situation and what you would like to grow. It’s usually best to start with the simplest method, just to get an idea of how it works. You don’t want to fall into the trap of investing a lot of money into one of the more intricate systems only to find out you don’t have the time or energy or prolonged interest to grow with a hydroponic garden. Start with the wick system. Grow a few plants using that method, then decide what’s the next best step for you. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- What do you want to grow? If you want to grow plants like leafy greens for your family, a simple drip or deep water system is sufficient. Producing more than just food for your family will involve a bigger system. Make sure to consult the plant recommendations for each design to find which one suits your growing needs best.
- How much money do you want to invest? A hydroponics system doesn’t have to be expensive, but it can be if you go with some of the more involved methods. Nutrients cost money, too; don’t forget that.
- How much space do you have available? Are you using a spare room in the house or garage? How big is it? Plan for the space you have available. It’s always best to start out small.
How to set up an easy and cost-effective wick hydroponic garden
A wick hydroponic system is the easiest, doesn’t require any pumps or electricity, and is an excellent project to do with the kids! This simple DIY system reuses a 2-liter soda bottle to grow a plant hydroponically. In this particular set-up, there is one plant per soda bottle, so it isn’t the best method for growing a lot of vegetables. However, it is a great place to start and get growing a few plants. Plus, it costs less than $10 to build.
How to set up an easy drip hydroponic system
Setting up a drip system is simple with this tutorial. This method is adaptable to how much you’d like to grow. It can be a small set-up with one plant, a few plants, or a much larger arrangement for 50+ plants. All you need to get started is a 5-gallon bucket, a pump, and some tubing. It’s quite simple and cost-effective. If you’d like to grow larger or heavier plants, like tomatoes or squash, this is the best hydroponic garden for you.
How to set up an easy deep water culture system
An easy deep water culture system (DWC) is another excellent place to start. Find a used glass aquarium to upcycle, and this project will cost almost nothing to set up. With this method, a Styrofoam “raft” is created to hold the plants. The raft is then placed in the aquarium, which is filled with water and the nutrient solution. Because Styrofoam isn’t heavy-duty, it is best to only grow lightweight vegetables with this system, like lettuce, beans, and radishes.
The Kratky Method, an adaptation of the deep water culture system, is revolutionary because it is passive. There is no need for pumps or electricity. The system is set-up like the DWC, but instead of keeping the roots immersed and providing oxygen through a pump, the water is allowed to evaporate over time, leaving the roots exposed. Ideally, the plants will be fully grown before the nutrient water needs to be changed. This only works for fast-growing plants. This is a beautiful and simple solution for growing lettuce and greens regularly. Individual lettuce, spinach, or herb plants will also grow in mason jars using the Kratky Method.
Another fun adaptation of the DWC method is using old soda bottles to create a vertical window garden of lettuce and herbs. This is fantastic because it’s a great way to repurpose old plastic bottles that would typically go in the dump, and it’s inexpensive and easy to create.
Can I have fish in my hydroponic system?
Aquaponics is similar to hydroponics, yet still vastly different. They are both soilless gardening methods. However, in aquaponics gardening, live fish provide nutrients to the plants through their excrement, which is an excellent fertilizer. There is no use of nutrient solutions in aquaponics.
We hope this introduction to hydroponics has you itching to give it a try. It’s a lot of fun to learn new ways to grow vegetables, especially when there may not be the usual options available. Hydroponic gardens, like soil gardens, are flexible and can be tailored to fit your situation. Once you see how fast some of these vegetables grow, you may just get hooked!